Mawing: by Robert Frost - Summary & Analysis

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There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound-
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

There was never a sound beside the wood but one, And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground. What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself; Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun, Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound- And that was why it whispered and did not speak.

Summary and Analysis


      Frost and Hardy have at least something in common for certain-like Hardy, Frost too found his style quite early in life and did not modify or change it later to any considerable extent. Mowing is an early poem, yet it is similar to Never Again would Birds Song be the Same in terms of language, though the latter was written thirty years later.

      The poem Mowing by Robert Frost begins with the statement of a fact, followed by a question - a scythe whispering to the ground and "what was it whispered? Thus hinting at the theme of the poem, the poet develops it through a series of comments and providing provisional answers to the initial question. The poem is not lacking in humor. There is a touch of humor in the poem. The lines move on in a casual colloquial manner, flowing rhythmically like a man talking to himself. The poet's method of arriving at the final answer is that of constantly rejecting or modifying the conclusion. This is neither a direct nor a logical answer to the original question: the poet reaches this conclusion through a series of evasive suggestions.

      Though a sonnet in form, it has the feel of a lyric. It was included in A Boy's Wil, the first volume of verses published by Frost. It is almost an integral part of anthologies of American verse and one of the favorite poems of readers who like Frost's verse. The spirit embodied in this poem is like a fine, delicate thread running through all his later poems. The tone of the poem is already mature. The lyric epitomizes simplicity. The lyric poses no problems of language or style - it neither has any difficult words nor does it involve any deliberate twists of style. But this veil of simplicity accounts for hidden esoteric layers of meanings within the poem. Its rich wealth of meanings becomes evident only after one has perused the poem thoroughly - every fresh reading yields new meanings, every new perspective opens out new vistas of meanings, implications and suggestions. In a perceptive comment, Lawrence Thompson says: "The extension of imagery suggests a much deeper emotional perception than that derived from a mere statement of the essential meaning. Objects and sounds, the grass, the woods, the mower, the steadily whispering swish of the scythe cutting the hay, all these combine to accentuate the intense pleasure within the mower himself."


      The central thought of the sonnet can be squeezed and fitted in one sentence the best-penultimate line of the poem: "The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows." But the poet's taking recourse to a structural balance of images denoting outer action, which in turn connotes inner thoughts and emotions, earns for the poem the coveted category of 'work of art'. The opening of the poem takes place in a hushed manner. At the beginning, the poet-mower is working in a field near a wood, where there is undiluted silence. Then there is a sound, a cacophonous note in the symphonic environment of the woods. The sound was that of the scythe whispering to the ground. The poet wonders and tries to find out what the scythe could be possibly talking of. Was it saying something about the heat the sun or was it muttering something about the perfect silence of the moment. Endowing the poem with a touch of humor that the scythe did not want to become a conspicuously discordant note-that is why it did not speak; it only whispered.

      The poet then continues with his exploration of various possible alternatives. The poet asserts with certainty that the scythe was not muttering anything about its vision of enjoyment in leisure hours, after having completed its work. Nor was it doing loud thinking about wealth that could be had from a fairy or any other good-intentioned body. The poet rejects a these possible alternatives because the poet knows that the scythe is like himself - in that it also has a passion for truth, for the ultimate reality. It does its work out of true love for it - its work being that of laying "the swath in rows", and mowing the grass.

      At this juncture, the poet has rejected all rational possibilities. The reader's curiosity is pitched high and they want to delve deep into the mystery of the mind of the heroine of the poem - the scythe. Everyone wants to know what the scythe was really whispering - of what philosophy, of what unknown regions of imagination and reality it was speaking. But Frost is not a second-rate artist. He does not take this lyrical sonnet to a crescendo at the heart of the poem, and then proceed on with the descension. He keeps the notes rising towards the crescendo - the climax which he provides in the last lines of the poem. The poem comes alive with sensuous touches of reality in phrases like a "bright green snake," and "pale orchises." It is in the thirteenth line that the reader is told what the scythe was whispering: and this is the crux of the poem. The scythe was saying:

"The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows."

      A laborer is very practical and down to earth. He has limited vision and finds pleasure in his job. He loves his work and is happiest when he is in the midst of it. He does not seek escape in a world of fancy and day dreams. In Birches the poet assures us that, "Earth is the right place for love," and from this poem we derive that it is the right place for labor too. The poem ends with a philosophical conclusion, and this is a usual phenomenon in Frost's poems. But the moral or the philosophy is not tagged on to the poem. The moral is deeply embedded in the poem. The moral is that reality, the bare facts of life can give one much greater pleasure than hours of fanciful dreaming. Day-dreaming is rejected in favor of life and reality.

Critical Analysis:

      Mowing has been praised by readers and critics alike. Elizabeth Jennings, Untermeyer, Brower, Lawrance Thompson are some of the critics who have lavished high praises on the poem. Trying to analyze the poem in one clean sweep, C. Day Lewis says that it begins with a fact and a question the scythe is whispering to the ground and the poet wondering what was it that the scythe was saying. He feels that the theme of the poem is embodied in the question - no matter how odd or whimsical it might appear. The poet makes this question the basis of his poem and proceeds very seriously to find an answer to this question. On his way to the final answer to this question, the poet thinks of and provides some alternatives which he goes on to reject in the same breath. These answers are either doomed as negative or modified-a series of modifications that build up something positive. When finally, he does provide the answer, he provides it in a manner that is characteristically tentative. Amidst this answer-searching, the poet inserts diversions like bright-green snakes and pale orchises. While one is lost in these shades and hues, one is caught all unawares. The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows'.

      This is the basic pattern in Frost's poems - a kind of argument or dialectic, not superimposed upon the subject but carefully worked out in consultation with it. Frost is a good practical craftsman. He alloys his artistry with a bit of truth or experience. His hard, dry, ruminative, reticent language reveals the depths of his roots in New England-for years he had farmed his own land.

      The lyric can easily be called an exposition of Frost's characteristic style. Basically, Frost's style is dramatic. The thought content of the poem is developed in a colloquial manner through questions and answers. At every step we feel the echoes of Yankee-speech; conversational phrases and sentences are interspersed throughout the poem. Though apparently a lyric, the poem is essentially a sonnet with a carefully worked out rhyme scheme. Naturally, it falls into two sestets and a concluding unrhymed couplet; though the basic meter in the poem is the iambic pentameter, the few variations introduced impart to it the flexibility and informality of conversation. Unstressed or extra-syllables, and spondees, trochees and anapaests have been introduced judiciously to impart natural, loose freedom to the verse.

      The immediate effect produced by an initial reading of the poem is the creation of the mood in which the fond reverie of the mower chooses for its contemplation, the tactile, visual and audile images. He thinks of these images in terms of action and of cherishing. There are intricate speaking tones, modulations and rhythms struck across the underlying metrical pattern of iambics. These coupled by the complex and irregular rhyme-scheme heighten and enrich the sensuous response. "This sonnet by Frost is so thoroughly irregular as to seem at first sight to lack any pattern of rhyme. Actually the scheme reveals a shrewd economy of rhymes: exactly the number found in a Shakespearean sonnet, yet different at every point. Thus, the natural divisions fall into two sestets and an unrhymed couplet, although the cumulative development of a single meditative incident is more nearly in the manner of the unified Miltonic sonnet." The reader is slightly puzzled by the subtle hues of implications that it might be hiding within its all-pervading mantle of ambiguities-he is bound to come back to this line again and again. Yet, as a miraculous artistic achievement, the harmony of the poem is not disrupted. If the fact-as-dream is interpreted as indicating that the entire reverie reflects an intensely sensuous joy in the immediate human experience, that such pleasurable experience constitutes an end in itself, the poem obviously makes sense in those terms. Thus, the sonnet proves itself to be in the same strain as the rest of Frost's major poetry: the themes of love and cherishing are the elements which this sonnet has in common with the rest of Frost's poetry. But if we take the fact as dream to be interpreted as representing the act of mowing as means to an end as well as an end in itself, it could serve to symbolize in the farmer poet's life, both a state of being and a process of becoming. The grass is cut and the hay is left to make, obviously for some ulterior purpose.

      For a proper and thorough examination and comprehension of the poem, it should be read in its creative context, i.e., with its companion poem Mending Wall. It should also be linked up with Frost's later poems from point of view of both theme and technique. The poet as laborer identifies himself with his scythe; and as the man and the instrument perform their task, their "earnest love" brings them to a simple and profound truth:

"The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows".

      The sonnet has a moral but is happily free from all shackles of didacticism. The moral is not obtrusive but is intrinsically woven in the texture of the poem instead. The poet is able to convey what he wants in a very casual, easy manner. Nothing seems to be unaffected or deliberate in this poem. Elizabeth Jenning says, "Mowing also demands and holds our complete attention because the reader never for a moment feels that the poet has a palpable design upon him or that he is trying to put something across him. There are no tricks in Mowing, no sleight of hand or mind". The poet completely identifies himself with his scythe. The treatment is anthropomorphic, i.e., human qualities have been attributed to the scythe. This may seem to be a trick, an artificial device, but we do not mind this personification because we "are assured of Frost's strong feelings about the scythe, and are, therefore, convinced that he had to write the poem in this way".

      Thompson has made a thorough study of almost all the well-known poems of Frost, from the point of view of subject matter and poetic technique. He thinks very highly indeed of the rhyme pattern of this sonnet. He praises the poem for its unique, subtle and original pattern of rhyme. He says that though the strongly conversational phrases and sentences lend themselves to the established metrical pattern, not one single line has the correct number of syllables for iambic pentameter, and the accents seem to avoid metrical precision deliberately. There are many substitutions and extra-metrical syllables in many lines but these are beautifully reconciled with the iambic pattern and there are no discordant, cacophonous notes struck. These do not have their presence felt as they do not disrupt a smooth reading of the poem. The persistently recurring anapaestic feet in an all-pervasive domain of the iambic, contribute to the richness of unstressed syllables. These seem to whisper quietly (like the scythe) against the basic rhythmical pattern of the poem. The use of trochees and spondees take away some of the rigidity of the verse and grant it some flexibility in turn. And finally it must be noticed that the most nearly regular line occurs exactly when the sententious quality of the thought can make the best use of metrical corroboration:

"The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows".

Paraphrase: Line by Line Explanation

      Line. 1-3. There was never...myself - Brown makes a very subtle and penetrative study of the poem. His comments on the poet's fancy are weighty enough to be quoted. "The mower who puts aside nineteenth-century - poetical fancies nevertheless allows a discreet play of fancy: the long scythe' is 'whispering' from beginning to end of the poem. But there is no certainty as to what the scythe was saying and the punctuation of the last line will not let us take the message either as the scythe's or Nature's. It is the mower- poet who says,

      Line. 6. And that...did not speak - Due to amplitude of quietude in the woods where the mower-poet was putting in a lat of labor, the scythe whispered only in soft murmurs. It did not think it proper to wake the woods from their soft, slumberous, quiescent mood..

      Line. 7. It was no...idle hours - The mower-poet is sure that the scythe was not thinking or talking about the leisure which is the gift, the reward of every toil. This implies that unlike human beings who do their work for its reward, the scythe was enjoying and fully engrossed in its work.

      Line. 8. Or easy gold..or elf - The scythe was not even thinking of any kind of wealth-either earned by its labor and industry or given to him by elves or fairies.

      Line. 9. Anything more than...too weak - Any exaggeration of the tact, the truth will make it (the fact itself) less believable, less effective. The truth referred to in this line, is the fact described in the penultimate line of the sonnet.

      Line. 10. To the rows - This line is linked up with the previous line and both are parts of the same sentence. The poet says that all exaggeration, strong words, would fall short of describing aptly the nature of true love out of which the scythe performed all its functions. The scythe worked happily out of sheer love and not out of any ulterior motives. Bringing out the significance of this line, Brower says that "the earnest love" can be linked to "the prayer" in all actions of which Emerson speaks in self-reliance. "The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends.

      Line. 11-12. Not snake - The mower-poet is not completely swayed by his love for his scythe. As he is talking about the scythe and what it whispered to him, he is alert and conscious enough to categorize the flowers and to observe that he has frightened away a green snake. Thompson comments on these lines and says the extensions of the imagery suggest a much deeper and emotive perception of objects than what is derived from a mere statement of the essential meaning. Objects and sounds - the grass, the woods, the steadily whispering swish of the scythe cutting the hay, the sunlight, the snake, the flowers - all these combine to accentuate the intense pleasure within the mower himself. Brower, in his illuminating comment on the rhythm says, "The curving thrust of the rhythm enacts the mower's sweep-unbroken yet allowing time to record and classify the spikes of flowers."

      Line. 11-14. Not make - These lines contain the essence of the poem. The thirteenth line of the sonnet, 'the fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows' is the central idea - the core and crux of the poem. This is what the scythe had been whispering to the mower-poet, all through the poem. The stylistic 'triumph of the sonnet lies in arriving at this insight through the perfect narration of the four preceding lines'. The mower was as intensely delighted by the flowers as he was with his having been able to scare a bright green snake. "Bright green snake" - this phrase sheds rays of beauty and ugliness, simultaneously, epitomizing the co-existence of beauty and ugliness in nature, which is perceptible only to keen and wary eyes and an empathetic heart. We wonder at the poet's capacity to get enthralled at and record the 'beauty of a slimy being'. This invites comparison with Wallace Stevens who, in one of his poems, records the seemingly discordant presence of a toad in an intimate love-choked scene between the speaker and his beloved. Stevens also brings home the same point as Frost does here. The most significant, quintessential element here is the thought that his mind is preoccupied with. The mower was neither wandering in the luscious dreamland of leisure which would immediately follow his labor nor was he enjoying fictitious pleasures of wealth that his hard work and industry would make him owner of. The mower's pleasure is unadulterated and knows no bounds. Its fountain-head is love of the work, the very doing of it, and the mower-poet feels that the sweetest dream is the fact itself. Though the mower is perceptive to whispered secrets of the scythe and promises about the future, his delight does not depend on these things. "It springs from his consciousness that inherent earth-passion makes meaning and pleasure from the immediate work of his hands. Thus knowledge in turn gives a cumulative meaning to life itself. Thus, the poet gives poetic form to his belief in the superlative importance of the momentary act of individual human consciousness. The sweetest dream that occurs to the mower is that love and work combine to give form and purpose and satisfaction to experience."


      Thus, we have seen that Mowing is as good as any of Frost's best poems. Like most of his other poems, nature is the scene of the poem. True that it is man amidst nature that Frost's poetry is about. But nature in Frost's poetry is not merely the backdrop but the instrument through which man is educated. The style is typical - through an apparently simple incident and literary devices, he is able to put across something which is profoundly philosophical. I think we can safely say that Mowing is an assimilation of Frost's acute powers of perception, observation and expression.


      Scythe - a kind of sickle for mowing grass. Gift of idle hours - leisure which comes when work is over. Elf - a supernatural being of human form but diminutive size. At the hand of fay or elf - wealth bestowed by some fairy. Earnest love - sincere love of work. Swale - dried grassy hay. Spikes - flowers having very short stalks. Orchises - rich, showy flowers.

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